When the University of Sydney canceled a scheduled talk by the Dalai Lama it revealed the threat that the Chinese state's growing influence on Western campuses poses to academic freedom and highlighted Beijing's behind-the-scenes campaign to undermine the Dalai Lama's legacy. What happened next served to remind Tibetans and supporters of the importance of making these battles public and fighting them using the power of the grassroots.
What happened in Sydney?
The controversy that played out at the University of Sydney last month is nothing new. For years, the Chinese government has protested any institution that dared to provide a platform for the Tibetan cause, whether it's a talk by the Dalai Lama, a film screening or a photo exhibit.
But times have changed. Today when it comes to academia, Chinese officials no longer have to go public with their opposition. They are able to wield influence behind closed doors, through individuals and institutions embedded on university campuses. Directly or indirectly, these individuals and institutions are dependent on Beijing for financial support and research access (visas can be denied if someone's work displeases Beijing).
In the case of the University of Sydney, acting as Beijing's proxies were the China Studies Center, Vice Chancellor Michael Spence and, in all likelihood, individual researchers and professors whose careers rely on their scholarly pursuits in -- and funds from -- China.
The China Studies Center, with close ties to the Chinese government and funding from organizations like the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, was "involved" in the discussions that led to the cancellation of the Dalai Lama's talk.
Vice Chancellor Spence, as revealed by leaked emails, was leading the charge to cancel the event. He had just returned from one of his many trips to China -- this time for a major Chinese business forum with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. During his tenure, Spence has prioritized close relations with China, and launched a $20 million Centre for Carbon, Water and Food at Sydney University in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Science.
"Thank you so much for your skill in dealing with this situation so effectively and in the best interests of researchers across the university. I think that the negotiated solution meets all the concerns."
When the Vice Chancellor wrote these words to the director of the university's Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR) after the IDHR's decision to move the Dalai Lama talk off campus and withdraw official support from it, he thought they were cleaning up an awkward situation, avoiding a backlash that could either jeopardize the university's funding, hamper researchers' access to China, or embarrass the university in the eyes of the public.
By dealing with the situation in this quiet and civil way, Spence was removing the need for Beijing to launch an aggressive attack on the university, and ensuring that the university's attempt to muzzle the Dalai Lama was kept out of the public eye. Why draw more attention to the issue and risk all the bad publicity when it could all be taken care of behind closed doors with a few emails and phone calls?
What may have happened elsewhere
When the University of Tasmania canceled plans to give the Dalai Lama an honorary degree in 2009 it was receiving nearly $30 million a year in revenue from Chinese students. Though there was no hard proof linking Chinese pressure with the university's change of heart, officials did admit that the issue had been discussed in a meeting with Chinese officials.
That same year, North Carolina State University canceled plans to host a talk by the Dalai Lama in Raleigh. University officials claimed the cancellation was due to organizational issues but admitted they were concerned about upsetting Beijing and had been warned by the head of the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute on campus that hosting the Dalai Lama could undermine relations with China.
More recently, there have been whispers at the University of Notre Dame that initial plans to award an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama were replaced by suspicious silence. Now, it seems, Gu Bing, the President of Tsinghua University, will make the trip to Indiana to receive his own honorary degree.
These incidents, seen together, reflect an emerging pattern: behind-the-scenes pressure from the Chinese government and its agents, in conjunction with preemptive self-censorship caused by a fear of retaliation by Beijing, is keeping some universities from recognizing or even welcoming the Dalai Lama on campus.
This campaign represents a new phase in the long-standing effort by the Chinese authorities to erode widespread global support for Tibet. In the eyes of Beijing, the Dalai Lama is the primary source of this support and therefore his activities and meetings must be curbed.
It's all a part of the plan
A telling passage from a speech entitled "Tibet-related external propaganda and Tibetology in the new era" by Zhao Qizheng, former Director of China's State Council's Information Office, leaked to the outside world in 2001, illustrates how Beijing views the Dalai Lama's global public appearances as a threat:
"During public gatherings, the Dalai [sic] portrays himself as a humble spiritual teacher and pretends to be seeking dialogues and autonomy. He lays pretense to non-violence and makes utmost efforts not to mix politics in his talks. He speaks on religion, ethics, culture, democracy, freedom and human rights. This has gained him unprecedented international support and solidarity."
Discussed explicitly throughout Zhao's speech is a plan to erode support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue through long-term strategies that call for proactive engagement with international NGOs, Western academics and intellectuals. This engagement will be carried out primarily by Tibetologists, both Chinese and foreign, who are favorable to Beijing. The minister lays it out clearly, stating: "External propaganda struggle for public opinion should be treated as an important work, requiring relentless attention. We should launch a coordinated assault on different fronts." In the years since this document was leaked, we have witnessed Chinese authorities executing almost all of the tactics outlined in Zhao's speech, most recently at the University of Sydney. Just last year, the school was again embroiled in controversy when the Confucius Institute on campus hosted a lecture entitled "The Selection of the Dalai Lama and its Political, Religious & Social Influence on Tibet" by Zhang Yun, an academic from the Chinese Center for Tibetan Studies who is widely known as a mouthpiece for the Chinese government.
While Chinese leaders are far from destroying support for the Dalai Lama and "winning over" global public opinion on Tibet as a result of these strategic efforts, they are clearly making progress in their attempts to gain influence over Western audiences -- most notably with the establishment of more than 400 Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms at university and secondary schools around the world that are operated by a branch of China's Ministry of Education.
Confucius Institutes are the flagship of Beijing's global soft power strategy, designed to promote a positive image of China by purportedly spreading Chinese language and culture. By offering a packaged deal of curriculum, teachers and funds to increasingly cash-strapped universities and colleges, Beijing has gained considerable access to -- and influence over -- Western academia.
The establishment of Confucius Institutes has been met with opposition because of fears that they will compromise academic freedom. Free and open discussion on topics that China considers sensitive -- like Tibet, Xinjiang and Falun Gong -- is essentially forbidden and there are reports that Chinese government propaganda has been offered up as fact on topics such as the Korean War and Taiwan. McMaster University in Canada will soon shut down its Confucius Institute because of the requirement that instructors not have any association with groups like the Falun Gong spiritual sect which is banned by the Chinese government.
Yet in spite of the controversy surrounding the proliferation of Confucius Institutes, they are now firmly established on over 400 campuses worldwide and the Chinese government aims to reach 500 by 2020.
When you misbehave
With China's influence growing on so many university campuses around the world, how long can Chinese government pressure be held at bay in these institutions? If university officials risk provoking Beijing and host the Dalai Lama, what happens afterwards, when the spotlight goes away?
One telling scenario occurred at the University of Calgary, where administrators went ahead with plans to confer an honorary degree on the Dalai Lama in 2009, only to discover later that the school had been removed from the list of accredited universities in China. At that time, a spokesperson for the University of Calgary publicly stated: "We have offended our Chinese partners by the very fact of bringing in the Dalai Lama, and we have work to resolve that issue." In April 2011, the university was re-accredited after what was described as "great relationship building" by the new President with the Chinese consulate.
Of course, it's not only academia on which the Chinese authorities are exerting pressure; it's everyone, everywhere. Most recently, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was targeted by Chinese authorities following his meeting with the Dalai Lama last year. Already forced to cancel a scheduled visit to China in April when it was made clear that he would not be allowed to meet with senior Chinese leaders, Cameron is now being pushed to apologize for the meeting .
Wielding this powerful combination of rewards, threats and punishment, the Chinese government is becoming more and more capable of bending the world to its will on Tibet. This disturbing trend makes one worry about the future of the Tibetan struggle.
For more than two decades, His Holiness has enjoyed tremendous global support. Many of us take it for granted that this will always be the case, that most doors will always be open to him. But Chinese leaders have been working relentlessly to close those doors and roll back support for Tibet.
It's clear we need to fight back. But how? What strength do we possess that can help us protect the political influence and access that the Dalai Lama has built over the decades?
The answer lies where it always has -- with the grassroots -- and the incident at the University of Sydney shows us the way.
In spite of all the time, effort and money the Chinese government has spent trying to forward its political objectives abroad, the Sydney incident shows us that Beijing is vulnerable in the face of mobilized grassroots power -- citizens who speak out and take action to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.
The University of Sydney has a Confucius Institute, a China Studies Center and a vice chancellor who has secured millions of dollars in Chinese government support and is clearly interested in strengthening this lucrative relationship. But all of these forces combined were not enough to stop the power of the popular grassroots opinion once the issue of the Dalai Lama's exclusion was publicized. And herein lies the key: the issue had to be exposed in order for the grassroots to mobilize. If a handful of individuals at the University had not taken action to expose the injustice taking place behind the scenes in real time, we would not have had the time or the ability to mount the campaign.
In the end, Tibetans and supporters were able to build awareness and ignite global support through mainstream and social media, and to use this collective power to create momentum and political capital to pressure the university into doing the right thing.
A single Tibet supporter (Sophie Bouris) and the lone Tibetan student at Sydney University (Yeshi Palmo) working together with the national Tibet Support Group (Australia Tibet Council) as well as international Tibet Support Groups (Students for a Free Tibet and the International Tibet Network) along with thousands of individual activists online became a force China could not overcome. In a few days, 15,000 individuals signed a petition urging the university to welcome the Dalai Lama. A campus protest was planned and publicized, unnerving the administration. As criticism grew from all corners, the university buckled, and announced it would host the Dalai Lama. It was the Tibet movement at its finest.
Protecting the Dalai Lama's legacy
Grassroots organizing is nothing new for the Tibet movement -- it is the way that support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibet issue was built in the first place.
The Dalai Lama has spent the better part of the past four decades traveling the world spreading a message of peace and nonviolence and highlighting the immensity of Tibetan suffering under Chinese rule. Individual citizens have embraced him, turning out in the millions to hear his words. Against all odds and in spite of China's incredible economic, political and military might, the Dalai Lama has become one of the most influential and beloved spiritual and political figures of the 21st century.
With little more than the concern and support of these people of conscience, the issue of Tibet has been kept alive in the international community even after six decades of merciless Chinese repression. Countless awareness-raising events have been organized, petitions signed, letters written, legislation passed, documentaries and movies made -- all because the injustice in Tibet has been exposed and people have been organized to take action.
The Chinese government knows the power of the global grassroots. They may never understand its true source -- the basic kindness and goodness of ordinary people -- but they have had to contend with its maddening force time and time again. It's not surprising then that in the past two decades, Chinese authorities have made undermining support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue a top priority.
It is critical that Tibetans and Tibet supporters remember these roots and confront China's attacks head-on, wherever and whenever they appear. It is not in Tibetans' interest to keep these discussions quiet and hidden away. Burying these issues in the back rooms and subjecting them to the slow death of silent diplomacy only serves the interests of the Chinese government and takes away much of the power that the Dalai Lama and Tibetans have.
There are some people who believe that we are living in a "post-protest" world when it comes to Tibet. This view is based, in part, on the belief that since the Tibet issue has not been resolved to date, all of the campaigns and demonstrations carried out over the years must have failed and Tibetans now need try something new -- something more quiet and comfortable for the Chinese and their allies. It also stems from the fact that the Chinese authorities have been relentless in their opposition to Tibet support activities and have successfully scared many people, including Tibetans, away from speaking out and taking action for Tibet in concrete political terms.
This "throw the baby out with the bathwater" mentality misses two critical truths: 1) the situation in Tibet remains unchanged because the Chinese government is an authoritarian regime that is unwilling and, some would argue, unable to budge on the issue; and 2) Tibet is a pressure issue that has advanced on the global stage largely because of grassroots protest.
Governments and other institutions pay attention to and take action on Tibet primarily because citizens demand it, not because they believe they are serving any core economic or strategic interests. Quite the contrary -- the Chinese government can make life so uncomfortable for anyone who sticks their neck out on Tibet that there is strong incentive for any person, government or institution with interests in China to keep Tibet out of the spotlight.
This is precisely why Tibetans and supporters of human rights and academic freedom must be vigilant and expose any attempt to shut down the Dalai Lama or discussion of the Tibetan issue -- whether it be on a university campus, in a public forum or in the highest offices of political power -- such efforts need to be seen in the daylight of publicity and media scrutiny so that global citizens of conscience can help us demand justice and unleash their grassroots power.
Certainly for Tibetans living in free countries, this is our primary obligation -- perhaps even our raison d'etre -- to speak truth to power and further strengthen global support for Tibet while pushing for real and meaningful change inside our homeland. This is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's greatest legacy and we must never allow the Chinese government to silence his voice, or ours.